“I’ve been in the restaurant business for over 20 years,” said Karen Lopez, the general manager of the Lexington Park Olive Garden. “I wouldn’t have done it this long if I didn’t love it.”

Lopez began working for Olive Garden in Laurel, MD in 1994. After four years there she moved on to Don Pablos in Bowie and after several more restaurant jobs and a few years as a stay-at-home mom, returned to Olive Garden after over 12 years of being away from the company.

She began working for Olive Garden as a server and after six months moved to management.

“One of the things I loved about management was I got to do everything,” said Lopez. “All the times in the ‘90s when I was at Chili’s and Don Pablos I did all these different things. I would work behind the line and then I’d get bored. I used to bar-tend and I’d get bored, and then I’d serve and then I decided I’d just do management because then I could do everything.  It was fantastic.”

Lopez spent time as a manager at Olive Garden locations in Laurel, Hyattsville and Waldorf before coming to rest at the Lexington Park location as a general manager.

In February 2014 Lopez was selected by Olive Garden, along with about a dozen other Olive Garden employees from all across the country, to participate in an “Italy Immersion”.

“I just felt so lucky,” she said.

This program is something that Olive Garden has been doing for years. Every few months the company picks a dozen or so employees to go experience Italy for two weeks.

“I ended up staying an extra week with my husband,” Lopez said. “It was kind of like our second honeymoon.”

Lopez said that overall the experience was incredible.  She said that along with sight-seeing and experiencing Italy from a tourist’s perspective she was also able to go to several cooking classes and tastings to fully experience the food of Italy as well as the atmosphere.

“We visited a lot of (cooking) schools when we were out there,” said Lopez. “I got a chance to cook, which was really fun.”

Olive Garden recently removed round pizzas from their menu and is now serving strictly flat bread, but guests still have the option to customize them with any toppings.

“One of the things that Olive Garden has been trying to do is become more authentic,” she said. “This (flat bread) is more of what you find in Italy when you go over there.”

Lopez said one of the reasons for the Italy Immersion trip is to help managers become more familiar with authentic Italian food that can be brought back to the restaurants.

Olive Garden has been adding more authentically Italian additions to the menu including the northern tour of Italy, which consists of three Italian dishes in smaller portions, and the Sicilian cheesecake.

Lopez said that one of the big things she got out of her trip to Italy was the importance of wine pairings with different meals. She said that pairing the right wine with the right food can really bring out the flavor in both.

“I push it (wine sales) on the servers a lot more,” said Lopez. “When it comes to other restaurants they have a lot of their bar menus, or beverage menus on the tables, which you can flip through and find a margarita or different kind of beer but here it’s wine, I think it’s under-appreciated.”

Something that Lopez pointed out was the fact that more vineyards are opening up in the Southern Maryland area. “The wine is growing,” she said.

Lopez said that despite the changes that are being made to the Olive Garden menu, guests still have the option to completely customize their meal.

“Whatever the guest wants we can cook for them,” said Lopez. “We had a guest that didn’t want capers (on the Mediterranian flat bread) and it’s already mixed in but we put on a pair of gloves and picked them out. People love that, it’s that special attention to detail that they love.”

After over 20 years in the business Lopez is still just as passionate about her work as when she started.

“It’s fun,” she said. “And it’s not stuff that you can get in an office. There’s always something going on, that’s what I love about it. I guess you could say I’m addicted to the restaurant business.”